Museum News


One Woman’s Determination Brought the Poe Museum Its July Object of the Month


Every object in the Poe Museum tells a story. Each artifact or piece of ephemera helps us interpret the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and influence. The July Object of the Month is no exception. The Cornwell Daguerreotype is a distinctly arresting image of Poe taken at a low point in the author’s life, four days after a suicide attempt. His fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, who owned the original, which she named the “Ultima Thule” Daguerreotype, pronounced it “wonderful” and told Poe’s biographer John H. Ingram that it had been taken “after a wild distracted night . . . and all the stormy grandeur of that via Dolorosa had left its sullen shadow on his brow.” One of four copies made directly from the original plate, this tiny daguerreotype (an early type of photograph made on a light-sensitive silver-plated piece of copper) has long been one of the most important artifacts in the museum’s collection. The image serves as an especially poignant document of Poe’s brief and troubled life. (Click here to learn more about the circumstances under which it was taken.) But this is only the beginning of the daguerreotype’s story. If it had not been for one woman’s determination, the piece might never have entered the collection.

Our account begins in 1933, when the world was still mired in the Great Depression. Early that year, the United States unemployment rate peaked at 25%, a drought plagued the heartland, over 5,000 banks had failed, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were homeless, struggling for survival in makeshift shanty towns. The Poe Museum (then known as the Poe Shrine) was not immune to this global crisis. To conserve energy, the Museum closed all but one of its four buildings and turned off its oil burner. Instead it heated one room in the Old Stone House with a wood stove. Before a December board meeting, the Poe Shrine’s secretary Mary Gavin Traylor wrote the museum’s president, Richmond News Leader Editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, for permission to at least use the oil burner during the meeting. If not, she added, “we will rock along with the fourth of a cord of oak and pine blocks and the small load of kindling donated to us…”

To save money, Dr. Freeman instructed the museum’s hostesses to take off one month for every three months of work. His note ended “If things are not better in spring, we will have to reduce the force by one.”

A notation in the financial records reads, “Personnel has been reduced to one lady for five hours in the morning and one lady for five hours in the afternoon at very small wage but positively all that could be paid…There was a loss in the ‘nest egg’ for the endowment at the time of the bank failures. Have not had heat or a phone since the depression…”

In early 1933, just when the museum’s situation was at its bleakest, Christine Smith Rawson of Bradford, New Hampshire contacted Ms. Traylor at the Poe Museum. Rawson was in need of money and owned a rare daguerreotype she knew would be of interest to the museum. Though she admitted she had no idea how much the piece was worth, she offered it to the museum for $500. This is the equivalent of $8,895 in today’s dollars. At a time of bank failures and staggering unemployment, this seemed like an impossible sum, but Traylor believed the Poe Museum needed this artifact. Before she attempted to acquire it, however, she would need to learn more about the piece. In order to learn something about the provenance (or history) of the piece, she quizzed Rawson about what she knew of the plate’s origin. Rawson had received it from her uncle John Clarke Turner, who had been given it by a Dr. Cornwell of New London, Connecticut. More research revealed that Dr. Cornwell had been a poet who had published a number of poems in the Poet’s Corner of the New London Telegram, and that Turner was editor of the Poet’s Corner. Through this connection, the two writers became friends, so, shortly before his death, Cornwell gave his cherished daguerreotype to his friend.

That the daguerreotype had once been owned by Cornwell was also recorded by Edmund C. Stedman, who had borrowed it from him in 1880 to have it reproduced as a wood engraving by Timothy Cole. The engraving appeared as an illustration for an article about Poe in the May 20, 1880 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. A footnote in the article notes,

The frontispiece-portrait in the present number of SCRIBNER is reproduced, on an enlarged scale, from what is thought to be the last daguerreotype obtained of the poet. The editor is indebted to the kindness of Dr. H. S. Cornwell, of New London, for the use of this picture, and for the facts establishing its authenticity. It was taken by the late Mr. Masury, of Providence, R. I., and Mr. Cornwell makes it probable that Poe sat for it within a year or two of his death in 1849. The lines of the neck and chin are not so heavy as in the Bendann daguerreotype, but my comments on the latter otherwise apply to this picture. The unusual development of Poe’s forehead in the regions where the analytic and imaginative faculties are thought to hold their seat, is here shown as in no other likeness of the poet. Mr. Cornwell writes of it:
“The aspect is one of mental misery, bordering on wildness, disdain of human sympathy, and scornful intellectual superiority. There is also in it, I think, dread of imminent calamity, coupled with despair and defiance, as of a hunted soul at bay.”

Timothy Cole’s woodcut reproduction of the daguerreotype can be seen below.

During Traylor’s investigation, she learned that a biography of Cornwell, John Sylvester Cornwell, A Memoir by Ellen Morgan Frisbie, had been published in 1906. She was able to find a copy in the Library of Congress and took notes on any information relevant to her search. She found that Cornwell was born in 1831 and died on 1886. A passage on page two reads, “Our poet numbered among his friends, Sarah Helen Whitman, the brilliant woman who at one time was the fiancée of Poe and they frequently exchanged poems in the course of their correspondence.”

Sarah Helen Whitman

On page sixteen, she learned, “From 1873 to 1880, The New London Telegram enjoyed a reputation for printing very good poetry. The Poet’s Corner was under the supervision of John C. Turner and was frequently graced by Dr. Cornwell’s compositions.”

On the same page, she found another passage: “One of the Doctor’s most cherished possessions was an old daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe whom he so much admired. It is now the property of Mr. Turner, to whom it was presented by the poet some little time previous to his death.”

Once she had traced the ownership of the plate to Dr. Cornwell, she could only speculate on how he had acquired it. The fact that he had corresponded with Sarah Helen Whitman was an important clue because she had been the owner of the original plate from which this copy had been made. From Stedman’s footnote, she knew that Cornwell had acquired his daguerreotype in Providence, the city in which Whitman lived. It had even been made in the same studio that had taken the original. Because daguerreotypes were made directly on a light-sensitive plate without the use of a negative, copies were made by carefully photographing the original. Since Mrs. Whitman owned the original, she probably authorized the making of this copy. She is thought to have made the copy in the Pierpont Morgan library for her friend Caleb Fiske Harris and that she had the copy now in the Fales Library for one of her correspondents Sarah E. Robbins.

Given the exceptional quality and clarity of the image in Lawson’s daguerreotype, it was believed the plate was the original, but this was easily dismissed by comparing it with the other copies. Aside from the Robbins daguerreotype, they all have Poe’s part on the same side. At the time of production of the plate, the images in daguerreotypes were reversed. If Lawson’s plate had been the original, it would be a mirror image of the other copies.

Later investigations revealed that the pattern on the daguerreotype case was produced in limited quantities around 1853. If the case is original to the plate, this would support the plate being dated to before 1860, the year Sarah Helen Whitman’s daguerreotype, from which it was copied, disappeared from her home.

Having established the provenance of the piece as well as she could, Traylor decided to find out if $500 was a reasonable price to pay for it. She wrote to Brown University, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and other owners of Poe daguerreotypes to ask what they had paid for their pieces. When these institutions were unable to provide any useful information, she wrote University of Virginia professor and Poe authority Dr. James Southall Wilson for his opinion. He answered, “I would not pay more than three hundred dollars for the picture offered you and…I believe…such an offer would be accepted.”

Armed with this information, Traylor brought the matter to the Poe Museum’s board but was told that the museum simply did not have any money for the purchase. Seeing how passionate she was about not letting the institution miss the chance to acquire what she believed to be the most important of the very few daguerreotypes made of Poe, the board eventually authorized her to try to raise the $500 on her own.

Traylor started contacting her wealthy friends for donations. One of her typical fundraising letters expresses her passion about acquiring the plate:

Some time ago, a rare find was brought to the Shrine in the hope that we would buy it, the Board met and regretfully had to say “no fund,” much as they felt it was a splendid thing for us to acquire. I was so filled with the realization of its importance and determined that it should not escape the Shrine that I asked permission to try to get a number of subscribers to a fund, so that they as a group might present it to the Shrine…”

Within a few months, Traylor was able to get commitments totaling $290. Among the twenty donors were Granville Valentine with $25, John Stewart Bryan with $25, Ambassador Alexander Weddell with $50, Dr. Douglas Freeman with $15, and James Rindfleisch with $50. Among the many who found themselves unable to contribute was novelist Ellen Glasgow, who wrote, “It would be splendid if the Poe Shrine could buy this daguerreotype, and I regret that I am unable to contribute toward the purchase.”

When she wrote back to Lawson that she could not possibly pay more than $300 for the daguerreotype. Lawson responded by suggesting Traylor pay $300 up front and the final $200 in one year.

On May 15, 1933, Traylor answered,

The Shrine cannot, for the board on such things, distinctly said, as much as they would like to have it, they could not with financial circumstances such as they are, purchase it. The financial circumstances are worse than they were, for as I told you we lost heavily in the American Bank not opening its doors. The Shrine cannot take on any obligation. Then there is no one left to make you a note but me, and the Heavens in their high sky are not further away than such a possibility is far from me. Who could make a note, the group of people I have approached, have contributed $5 and $10 dollars each, each doing in doing that, all that he or she could feel able to do, there would be no chance of asking them to make a note. No one of them, at a time, when to eat and live is of so much more importance than a Poe Daguerreotype, would dream of being responsible for any $200 that might be collected, no individual is taking on responsibilities at this date either. To have a note made out to you is utterly out of the question. To carry on here at the Shrine with what we have is much more important, vital necessity and not in any manner to endanger that, is more important than to endanger that, is more important than to enhance the collection at this moment with no matter how interesting a Poe item, be it a manuscript, daguerreotype or piece of furniture. This is the situation as it exists today. Everybody has marveled that I have been able to get the promise of $300 to be given me…

After pointing out that the daguerreotype is a copy and, therefore, not as valuable as an original, Traylor continues,

I am anxious to have it, you should be able to readily see that. But $300 cash is the extent of my ability…You will not be able to get more elsewhere…Do please just let the group have it for the $300 I have the promise of and let it be presented to the Shrine. I feel you will never regret it, dear Mrs. Rawson…

On May 26, Rawson replied,

I have succumbed to your pleadings and enthusiasm and your unbounded interest in the Poe Shrine. I am going to let you have the picture for $300…Feeling happy that the picture is going to the Poe Shrine and thanking you for your great interest and help…

Now Traylor found herself faced with the task of collecting all the money that had been pledged. She rushed to collect the donation from Ambassador Weddell, who was about the leave the country. His donation alone amounted to one sixth of the total, so missing him before he left would have been the end of her effort. With Weddell and most of the other donors still able to fulfill their pledges, Traylor was able to purchase the plate in time it to go on display at the Poe Museum on October 7, the anniversary of Poe’s death. Thanks to Traylor’s vision and determination, the museum’s guests still able to see this important artifact at the Poe Museum.

The next time you visit the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden you might come upon this small plaque placed in memory of Mary Gavin Traylor.



1 Comment »


  1. A wonderful story! Thank you to Ms. Traylor for her persistence on behalf of all of Poe’s fans (which include me, my spouse, and our 3 teenagers).

    Comment by Betsy Talbott — July 14, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

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